After a season unlike any other, NBA fans will be treated to a Finals matchup just as unique. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns will tip off Game 1 on Tuesday, beginning a title clash between two franchises that have one combined title to their names (the Bucks in ’71). No player on either team has won a championship, adding extra elements of excitement and uncertainty to this year’s series. So who will claim the title? And how will they do it? Check out our answers below.
What’s the most intriguing question heading into Bucks-Suns?
Dan Devine: The health, availability, and effectiveness of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee righted the ship after Antetokounmpo suffered a hyperextended left knee midway through Game 4 against Atlanta, closing out the Hawks with consecutive wins in which they scored a blistering 123 points per 100 possessions without their leading man. Puncturing Phoenix’s defense, though—which ranked sixth in defensive efficiency during the regular season, and has been even stingier in its run to the Western Conference crown—will likely be a lot tougher than taking down Atlanta, and the Bucks could really use the two-time MVP to do it.
In two meetings against Phoenix during the regular season, Antetokounmpo totaled 80 points in 73 minutes on 60 percent shooting, using his rare combination of athleticism and physicality to score around, over, and through Suns center Deandre Ayton, who drew the primary defensive assignment on Giannis in both contests. If Giannis can’t go, or if he’s active but his mobility and explosiveness are limited, the workload on Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday—who will already have their hands full trying to check Devin Booker and Chris Paul, respectively—will get even heavier, and the challenge of trading buckets with an excellent Suns team will become even more daunting.
Logan Murdock: Health. This has been one of the most injury-plagued postseasons of the modern era. Giannis’s return is still uncertain on the eve of the Finals, making the series even more unpredictable.
Paolo Uggetti: How much does Chris Paul have left? Sure, Giannis is the one coming off a hyperextended knee, but he’s also 10 years younger than Paul and has had less than half the number of playoff runs that Paul has. The story of Paul’s playoff shortcomings has its fair share of collapses, but it’s been equally sidetracked by injuries that have come at the most inopportune times. Paul has played 459 playoff minutes so far, and at the pace he’s going, he will blaze past his previous playoff minute total (517 in 2018) by Game 2 of the series. The Finals is uncharted territory, not only for Paul’s basketball career, but also for his body, and how it holds up may swing the series one way or the other.
Zach Kram: Besides the obvious question about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s health, I’m most curious about how the Bucks’ defense will hold up against Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attack. Much of the Eastern Conference finals hinged on a clash between the Bucks’ base drop coverage, which willingly surrendered midrange shots, and Trae Young’s penchant for floaters; now, Brook Lopez and Co. face Chris Paul, who’s taken a league-high 73 percent of his shots this postseason from the midrange, and Devin Booker, who ranks sixth at 57 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Bucks experimented more with switching and small lineups in both the regular season and playoffs—at least, before Giannis’s injury—and they may have to break out a variety of coverages to try to mess with the Suns’ All-Star backcourt. (Jrue Holiday, after all, can guard only one at a time.) Paul, the Suns’ offensive leader, versus Lopez, the Bucks’ defensive anchor, will be a battle between two smart, savvy veterans, and the pair could spend seven games manipulating each other from one strategy to another.
Seerat Sohi: Can Giannis play, and in what capacity? You can picture it now: Game 1 ambles along until the fourth quarter. Chris Paul comes off a pick, gets Jrue Holiday on his butt and shoots his patented short jumper over Brook Lopez. The percentages are working in Paul’s favor today, forcing the Bucks’ hand. In one series of events, Giannis shifts to the 5 and the Bucks switch everything with Tucker, Holiday, and Middleton sharing the court with him. Milwaukee’s physicality overwhelms the Suns. The Bucks ride the lineup to a championship. In the other scenario, the barrage of jumpers helps the Suns solve the Bucks. Giannis’s defense allows the Bucks to be malleable, intelligent, and nimble enough to keep up with the skill and intelligence of Booker and Paul as they orchestrate a well-oiled and diverse pick-and-roll attack.
Matt Dollinger: Can the Suns beat the Giannis-less Bucks? As some noobs named Dan Devine and Rob Mahoney wrote on our site, Milwaukee is still really, really good without its two-time MVP. After a wacky season filled with endless injuries and strange twists, wouldn’t a team winning the title without its best player be the most fitting ending?
Whose legacy benefits more from a title: Giannis’s or CP3’s?
Murdock: Easy answer: Chris Paul. He’s in his 16th year, and with a checkered playoff health history coupled with the looming Lakers and Warriors next year, it might be his last, best chance at winning a title. Giannis (God willin’) still has AT LEAST eight more years at an elite level and will have plenty of chances to come out of the East.
Uggetti: This is a trick question and I refuse to answer it, but here’s a cop-out: Both? This is basically a Looper situation. Paul is trying to win one to avoid being another all-time player without a ring, while Giannis is trying to win one so that he doesn’t eventually find himself in Paul’s position later in his career. The twist is that not only is this Paul’s likely last shot as much as it is his best shot, but given that a healthy Nets team looms, it could be Giannis’s best opportunity too.
Devine: Paul, because this is all that’s left, really—the lone box unchecked, the final piece of the puzzle, the crowning jewel in a résumé that will place him among the immortals. He’s a Hall of Famer anyway, but becoming a champion—especially one who led a team to a title as a 6-foot-tall point guard—would put him in extremely rare air in the history of basketball. Giannis is nearly a full decade younger than Paul; fate is fickle, but with Middleton and Holiday under contract for at least the next two seasons, he could have another crack at this. Paul’s 36. His time is now; it has to be.
Dollinger: Chris Paul will be remembered as the Point God regardless of how these Finals play out. He’s undeniably one of the greatest players of his generation. But Giannis has a chance to become the greatest player of his generation. If Giannis plays and wins the title, he would become the NBA’s undisputed best player heading into next season, knocking the King off his long-occupied throne. With the momentum from his first title, I could absolutely see Antetokoumpo racking up multiple MVPs and Larry O’B’s over the next decade.
Sohi: It’s tempting to say Paul’s. A title would be the final piece of his legacy puzzle, but if he can play, I have to go with Giannis. He provides contrasts for fans to dig their nails into: a superstar who stayed in a small market—and in fact declined free agency altogether—doesn’t shoot 3s well, and leans on defense in a league where offense rules. It’s an oversimplified take on reality, but it’s also the stuff of legacy.
Who is the biggest X factor in the Finals?
Sohi: Jrue Holiday’s defense on Chris Paul. His defense demands engagement. One errant dribble and the ball’s out of your hands. Paul, who just capped off a 41-point, eight-assist closing game with zero turnovers, can and will rise to the challenge. When the Bucks and Suns faced off this April, Paul used Holiday’s aggressiveness against him, faking one way and then running the other. He’s too sharp and experienced to be overwhelmed by Holiday’s pressure, but it will take a physical and mental toll on him, requiring a level of creativity and grit that is hard—but not impossible—to maintain for an entire series.
Uggetti: Deandre Ayton. I tried to think hard (but not too hard) about a more clever answer, but the reality is that whether Ayton continues to break out or wilts under the pressure of guarding Giannis and/or Brook Lopez will go a long way toward determining this series. Ayton has been awesome, and three months ago we wouldn’t have demanded this much from him, but it speaks to his growth that he’s now pivotal to the Suns’ chances.
Dollinger: Scott Foster. Jrue Holiday is a hell of a defender, but something tells me Chris Paul is a lot more worried about his longtime archnemesis, Scott Foster, in this series. As CP3 noted earlier this postseason, he’s lost 11 straight playoff games that Foster has officiated. And that really doesn’t even do the rivalry—and maybe the bitterness toward one another—justice. The referee assignments haven’t been announced yet, but Foster’s career is arguably as decorated as Paul’s. This will be Foster’s 14th Finals compared to Paul’s first. I absolutely expect him to get the call. And I absolutely expect Chris Paul to get no calls.
Murdock: Deandre Ayton. Entering the postseason, the 7-footer’s maligned defense raised questions about whether the Suns could even get past the first round. Since then, he’s contained Anthony Davis, pestered Nikola Jokic, and dominated the Clippers’ hobbled front line. He’s proved legit, but he’ll face perhaps his biggest test in Giannis.
Kram: From the regular season through the first round, Bryn Forbes made 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers, including nearly half of his attempts in a scorching sweep over the Heat. In the last two rounds, however, Forbes is at just 29.8 percent from distance. When Forbes is curling around picks and hitting his 3s, he adds a whole new element to the Bucks’ offense; when he’s stuck in a cold spell, as he was against Brooklyn and Atlanta, the offense tends to stagnate and Forbes himself becomes unplayable, given his limited skill set. That ripple effect would be especially potent against Phoenix—it’s hard to imagine Forbes successfully defending any Suns guard—which would then stretch an already thin rotation even thinner.
Devine: Ayton. If Giannis plays, the third-year center will be Phoenix’s first choice to disarm Milwaukee’s most dangerous weapon. If Giannis doesn’t, he’ll have to keep Lopez and Bobby Portis off the offensive glass, serve as the back-line captain to keep the Suns organized against Milwaukee’s ball and player movement, and hold his own on the perimeter when switched out onto Middleton or Holiday. He’ll also have to attack the offensive boards himself, pop Booker and Paul loose in the two-man game, dive hard to suck in the help defense to create openings for Phoenix’s shooters, and punish Milwaukee’s smalls on switches if CP3 and Booker hit enough midrange shots to force Mike Budenholzer to abandon his preferred drop defensive coverage. I’m not sure there’s a single player whose estimation and reputation around the league has improved more during this postseason than Ayton. Whether he can continue to act as an efficient two-way interior anchor could go a long way toward deciding which team controls the run of play.
What’s your favorite off-the-court story line?
Kram: I’m excited for the years to come, when I can reference this series as a counterpoint every time someone frets about the NBA’s supposed coastal dominance.
Sohi: The thing that’s so cool about this series is that no matter what, some long-suffering fans—either fans who convinced themselves Alex Len could be the center of the future or fans who were told Jabari Parker was the prince who was promised—will be rewarded for their years of loyalty.
Murdock: The fact that neither team has won a title in the past 50 years. This generation knows each franchise more for nostalgia than Finals appearances. The Ray Allen, Big Dog–led 2001 Bucks get more attention than Kareem’s skyhook leading Milwaukee to the 1971 title, while Charles Barkley’s ’93 throwback is a day-party staple, despite him famously losing to Jordan at home in the threads. With LeBron, Steph, and KD’s Warriors dominating the previous decade, it’ll be nice to finally see some new faces hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Devine: Frank Kaminsky, lightly used Suns reserve, returning to Wisconsin, where he grew last decade into a giant, gawky, undergraduate god. Will he be hailed as a hero? A favored son returning from years at war to a warm embrace on the homefront? Or will he be met with the pure vitriol reserved for those you once held closest to your breast, only to see them join the ranks of the villains? Sure, our attention will be trained primarily on the action on the court. But our hearts will be inescapably drawn to the roiling psychodrama beneath the surface, the toil and tears tied to the plight of the Tank.
Uggetti: The fans. Two small-ish market franchises who have either never won a title or haven’t won one since 1971, playing in two great downtown arenas in front of two passionate fan bases after a year-and-a-half pandemic kept everyone from attending sporting games en masse? Sign me up. Also, the celebrity fan equation is strong. I need Kendall Jenner to return the fastball Sheryl Crow just pitched in order to get this going.
Dollinger: Will I eventually hate-watch Space Jam 2 after seeing 30,000 commercials for it during the Finals? I’m right on the fence.
Who wins and in how many games?
Uggetti: Suns in seven and Jake from State Farm gets a shout-out during Chris Paul’s MVP speech.
Sohi: Suns in four. Psych! Suns in six; seven if Giannis can be 90 percent. Mike Budenholzer has become a more malleable coach, but the Bucks still prefer to protect the paint over 3-pointers, mostly because that plan has largely worked. But the Suns are practically designed in a lab to beat this strategy, with multiple ball handlers who can beat drop coverages, punish switches, and stop short of the rim. Paul and Booker can smell it, and there’s a formula to victory that they can repeat over and over again.
Murdock: Suns in six.
Devine: Suns in six.
Dollinger: Bucks in seven. But if anyone bigger than me in a Phoenix jersey asks, Suns in four.
Kram: At full strength, these two teams are frighteningly even: Both regular-season meetings were decided by a single point. But the Bucks are not at full strength, and that unfortunate reflection of the 2020-21 postseason makes this pick easy. If Giannis plays, Suns in seven. If he doesn’t, Suns in five.